How Living in Sweden Changed the Way I Think About Health

Stockholm

I lived in Stockholm, Sweden for one brief and beautiful summer.

I ended up there through a series of serendipitous events. I’m a US-based freelancer who, technically, can live and work anywhere (though my house, family, and firm love of mountains keep me primarily rooted in Salt Lake City, Utah). After booking some photography gigs in Europe, I decided to take a family friend up on her offer to use her flat in Stockholm for the summer as a European home base.

I fell in love with the city. Stockholm is euphoric in the summertime, I think in part because the city’s winters are so dark and brutal that its residents are just plain grateful to be outdoors. I was there long enough to sink into the normalcy of the place — I worked out of various cafes, made friends, learned the ins and outs of the public transport system. I began investigating how to get the ball rolling on a permanent move there (which is still not off the table). I ate all the new foods that came my way.

 

 

I also learned, unexpectedly, some very valuable lessons about my health, my diet, the things I view as “healthy” vs. “unhealthy,” and the way my American upbringing affects each of those things, respectively.

I fell into new eating habits quickly, learning through observation from the Swedes I lived and dined with. Each morning in Sweden, I would wake up and make myself a full-fat cappuccino. Breakfast involved sawing myself off a few slices of freshly-baked white bread, slathering said slices with butter, and topping it off with Swedish cheese. I’d often repeat the process at lunch, maybe with some salad or fruit. Dinners were typically fish or vegetable based, fresh and delicious. Oh, and there was wine. An impressive amount of wine.

 

 

Everything I knew about being “healthy” in the United States told me this lifestyle was wrong. Whole-fat dairy? Alcohol? White bread? Butter? I repeat, butter?! According to the two-dozen fitness Instagrammers I follow, I should have been fat, lethargic, and sad. I felt just the opposite: Active, positive, high-energy. My skin was clearer than usual. I didn’t gain a single pound — in fact, I lost weight. An I’d-better-go-buy-a-new-pair-of-jeans amount of weight.

I was baffled for a while, but as I began to take stock of my new habits, I realized there are several things Swedes innately know that Americans have yet to figure out.

 

 

Moderation nation

America is a country of extremes. We’re a nation of fast food drive-throughs, big gulp cups, and portion sizes that are downright dizzying — but we’re also a nation of health food, of Whole Foods, of ketogenic-this and paleo-that.

In the US, I thought healthy meant kale and Himalayan pink salt and pasture-raised, runny-yolk eggs. I drank my coffee black because I believed dairy was the devil. I experimented in giving up entire food groups.

Sweden challenged these ideas, simply by calming the f*ck down about everything. I ate happily from every food group. I let go of a lot of the guilt I associated with certain foods. Portions were smaller (read: normal size). I listened more to my body, eating when I was hungry and stopping when I wasn’t.

 

Sugar sucks

All of that said, I need to make a whopping distinction between Swedish food and American food: Swedish food is objectively better for you. My friend Maj, who lives in Sweden and is type-1 diabetic, told me she hates traveling in America because her blood sugar “goes crazy” (her words) eating foods she assumes to be normal.

Americans put sugar places we have no business putting sugar. Whole wheat bread. Tomato sauce. Our “low-fat” and “no-fat” alternatives to milk, yogurt, and oils are pumped full of sugars to make them taste better. Take a look at the labels in your pantry and fridge — what you find might just shock you.

So, while I hate on America’s health food industry for being so extreme, I need to acknowledge that in some ways this is out of necessity; a response to a supremely screwed-up food system that prioritizes profit over health, freshness, and even taste.

 

When in doubt, walk

I maintained my normal workout routine while living in Sweden, doing bodyweight resistance training three times a week. Beyond that, I was actually exercising a whole lot more, and quite by accident. My friend’s flat was in a suburb of Stockholm proper, and the walk to the train was about twenty minutes. I’m not going to lie to you: When I first arrived, I balked at that twenty-minute walk. We drive everywhere in the US, especially in smaller cities and suburbs. I’ve driven to the other side of a parking lot before, if the stores I want to shop at are at opposite ends. In Utah, my house was a whopping five whole blocks from the coffee shop I used as an office, and never once had I ever walked there.

In Sweden, it was no car, no problem. Just walking to and from the train built a default 40 minutes of walking into my day — 40 minutes I came to love because I would listen to podcasts or audiobooks and enjoy the scenery. Add in all of the walking I did within Stockholm, and I was easily logging more than 10,000 steps a day.

It’s a no-brainer that more exercise equals more calories burned, but there’s even more compelling evidence to ditch the car: A new, impressively-detailed report from TIME reveals that plain, simple, boring old walking is one of the best things you can do for your body. The report claims it burns fat more efficiently than running, keeps you happy, extends your life, and helps prevent dozens of chronic conditions (including most cancers).

 

 

I needed to figure out how to adapt what I learned to normal, American life. I didn’t want to return home — where there is added sugar in food and where I don’t live 20 minutes from a train station — and fall back into all of my old habits.

 

If you want to try any of them out for yourself (and I HIGHLY recommend you do) here’s where to start:

 

Savor the (high-quality) foods you love without guilt

Food is fuel. It’s also a source of pleasure, tradition, community, and flat-out happiness. For me, living a truly balanced and happy lifestyle doesn’t mean denying myself food I love — it means choosing when I want to indulge and shifting my lifestyle to accommodate that. Skip low-quality, processed foods (sugary drinks, fast food, etc;) but don’t feel bad about enjoying that buttery mushroom pasta or a delicious piece of freshly-baked bread.

Marie Kondo the hell out of your diet. Does that corndog spark joy? Ditch the corndog. Keep the stuff you actually love.

 

Reject hidden sugar

Hidden added sugars are terrible because you can’t even enjoy them. Seriously — I’d much rather bite into a fantastic chocolate chip cookie than unknowingly ingest sugar in my pasta sauce and whole-wheat bread. Take the extra time at the grocery store to check the labels of your food items (even the ones that look “healthy!”) and swap your staples out for alternatives free from unnecessary sweeteners.

 

Take a lunch break walk

Desk jobs, am I right? Sitting all day does nothing good for your body or your mind. Break up the monotony of the day by taking a walk on your lunch hour — you’ll get some steps in and do a whole bunch of good for your health in the process. If your lunch break isn’t a good time, analyze when you can get a half hour of walking in per day. A morning walk with the pup? Can you walk to work, or the train? Can you take the stairs? Can you — and I’m serious about this last one — park at the very back of parking lots when you’re out and about, so you’re forced to walk an extra few minutes at a time?

It sounds silly, but it’ll add up.

 

What does a balanced lifestyle mean to you? What do you do to feel healthy? Tell us in the comments below.

  • Annie Teveniuk

    I am seriously inspired by this! It’s amazing how traveling can impact such big things in our lives. This article first of all makes me want to travel to Sweden, but also eat fresh foods and no more processed stuff full of sugar! I am inspired to watch what I am eating, but also enjoy the foods I love, that are real. You have made my morning! Thank you for sharing

  • I always try to walk as much as possible, so for example I get off the underground a station before mine so I have to walk an extra 10 min and I try to walk everywhere I can. It’s such an easy way to get some exercise without even realising! x

    Ariadna || RAWR BOWS

  • I always try to walk as much as possible, so for example I get off the underground a station before mine so I have to walk an extra 10 min and I try to walk everywhere I can. It’s such an easy way to get some exercise without even realising! x

    Ariadna || RAWR BOWS

  • I always try to go for a walk during my lunch because being in the office kills me! It’s a good thing that there’s an entire underground path at work so I don’t need to go outside in the winter!

    https://thedianaedition.com

  • I’m from the U.S. but live in Copenhagen, and I can relate to this so much! My entire lifestyle changed after moving, and I really started to think about food differently. Copenhagen is a very walk-friendly city. I was so sad and worried to leave my car at home, but after living there for a few months, I barely missed it! Amazing post xx

    Madison http://breakfastatmadisons.com

  • Katia

    I used to live in France and never understood why I ate so much bread, cheese, and SO MUCH WINE, yet here I eat kale and no dairy and feel not even half as good. My skin was better there, my mood was better, but this hidden sugar answers it all!
    I know my walking was thousands of steps a day compared to the states, but even last weekend walked 2.5 miles to the library and back as I have kept trying to keep that up since I left.

  • I’ve recently embraced fat and lost 10 lbs!! I’ve also actively cut out sugar, which helps. The hidden sugar in food is a real problem – I still don’t understand why bread needs sugar?!

    • Kayleigh Topping

      In Europe they have way less hidden sugar, even products they have the same as US like Coke has less sugar over there (they alter the formula for the regions palette)

      • So true!! And fewer chemicals because so many are banned in the EU. Its shocking that we don’t know our own power as consumers and use it to demand change.

  • Leandra Beabout

    I love this, and it’s a huge reason why I struggle with living in small-town Midwest America (basically no public transit). My preference has always been to have an active LIFE, in which walking is an everyday necessity and my weekend activity of choice is something like a free hike to local scenery. I don’t like how in order to be active where I live now, I need to set aside specific active times, like going to the gym or fitting in a workout. Hm… all the more reason to head back to Europe! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • GB

      My love and I were just saying the same thing this weekend. We live in OKC…I work out at the YMCA in downtown. I think it is so neat how the young people who live downtown walk to work, to the Y, to restaurants. I wish I lived downtown.

  • Natalia Lee

    This was such a great read! My boyfriend and I are moving to Budapest in January to teach English. While a bit nervous about maintaining a healthy diet and fitness routine, this post eased my worries and made me excited to experience a new culture!

  • Maegan Forbush

    I had the same experience in France! And heck yes, I ate the croissants and baguettes and the various cuisines of the region. Never has my skin looked clearer (and glowy)- definitely in part to the exercise and general happiness I felt – but also the fact that everything isn’t processed. This article is very timely in that it has reminded me of the lessons I learned and to re-question the food I’m buying now that I’m back in the US.

  • Bianca

    True about sugar being in almost every product you buy in US. I’m from Europe and when I went to US and started eating food from supermarket everything was too sweet,from bread , ham …I was shocked. Too bad!

  • Hannah Tangi Elliott

    I would say this applies to a lot of western Europe. I’ve lived in France & Belgium for the last 4 years and these principles apply to both. I often gain weight now when I go back to the US and it’s surely hidden sugars & additives (along with portions) because I don’t change my diet that dramatically.

    But I think the key takeaway is the mindset towards food in Europe. Food is meant to be enjoyed and there is very little guilt over eating something that would be considered ‘bad’ (re: croissant) in the US. And surely how you feel about your food affects how your body processes it. Or is this too hippie dippy? 🙂

    • Kayleigh Topping

      I noticed they like to have a piece or 2 of candy when they get a sweet tooth, which makes it a treat rather than having loads of sugar in everything.

  • Kayleigh Topping

    I lived in Germany for a year and noticed many of the same things. They had amazing public transportation which encouraged walking to and from the train station prevented much of a fast food culture. Many people didnt own microwaves, which is most often used to make unhealthy frozen food. On the other hand, they ate crazy amounts of butter and baked goods, bakeries were everywhere (6 in walking distance of my apt!) And rather than wine it was beer…so much beer. They drank everywhere (on the train, at work etc), at any time (it wasnt uncommon to see someone with beer before I had my coffee) and usually every single day.

  • I’ve been actively trying to avoid sugar in my diet, since it does such awful things to me. That’s why I prefer to make my own bread and stuff – so I can control exactly what goes in it!

  • I’ve been actively trying to avoid sugar in my diet, since it does such awful things to me. That’s why I prefer to make my own bread and stuff – so I can control exactly what goes in it!

  • Marcella

    So true, I studied abroad in Spain and as soon as I got back, my skin started breaking out again because of stupid American PROCESSED FOOD!! My skin was literally glowing there. My dad even commented on a picture I sent my parents and said “you look great there must be something in the water.” Haha. Stockholm looks cool, I want to visit someday 🙂

  • Maggie

    Great article. I just got back from a trip to Stockholm and had the same experience. As a dietitian and passionate foodie, I fully embrace all the local foods when I travel. The Swedes and Europeans in general have a much more relaxed and intuitive eating philosophy, which is a tough thing for many Americans to grasp. I really enjoyed reading this article.

  • I have never lived or visited the US so I can’t compare those two lifestyles, but even in Europe Scandinavian nations are known as the ones that ‘found the true happiness’ and healthy lifestyle and they are viewed as the healthiest and happiest nations so I am not surprised living in Sweden was such a positive experience. I think I’d like to live in Norway or Sweden for a while to experience that culture too.

    And the wine 🙂

    xx A. | mylondonandbeyond.wordpress.com

  • kerry lien

    I always wonder why when I travel in Europe, eat all the pasta and bread and cheese and still manage to either lose or stay the same weight. It’s all the walking and fresh food. So hard to do in the US.